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‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ turns 40: Karen Allen looks back at the blockbuster

To celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary, Paramount Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. have just released a 4K Ultra HD four-movie box set.

Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) knows she holds the key to a mystery in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Barkeep Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) knows she holds the key to a mystery in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Paramout

In 1981, movie fans couldn’t get enough of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the Steven Spielberg-George Lucas-Lawrence Kasdan action-adventure film starring Harrison Ford as the archeologist Indiana Jones. The film created one of filmdom’s most memorable characters in Jones, became a box office blockbuster, spawned three sequels (including a fifth installment in the franchise set to begin filming this summer) and also introduced Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood, a tough, independent woman who could hold her own when faced with Nazis, bar-room brawls, and a former lover.

To celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary, Paramount Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. have just released a 4K Ultra HD four-movie box set, featuring fully remastered prints and Dolby Atmos soundtracks of each of the first four “Indiana Jones” installments.

Allen talked about the film during a recent phone chat, recalling what the experience meant to her, brining the character of Marion to life, and why the film remains one of the most beloved of all time.

Q. What was it like when you began filming?

A. Well it was pretty extraordinary. I had done three films until that point (including “Animal House” and “A Small Circle of Friends”), all of which were fairly realistic; we were on the street, in apartments, normal kinds of places [for sets].

I walked into Elstree Studios (in London) and saw the most magnificent sets (for “Raiders”) that had been built. The Raven Bar was in there, the Well of Souls, and all these incredible places that they had magically built for us. It was pretty impressive and awe-inspiring for me. That was really going back to Old Hollywood. I had never been on a film set before. So it was really a whole new world in a sense. I loved it.

 Karen Allen starred as Marion Ravenwood in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the iconic film that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary June 12.
Karen Allen starred as Marion Ravenwood in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the iconic film that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary June 12.
Courtesy Karen Allen

Q. Had you met Harrison Ford before filming started?

A. I met him in Los Angeles. I had been cast first. They had Tom Selleck already and then Tom couldn’t do the film because “Magnum, P.I.” got picked up and they wouldn’t’ let him out of his contract. So suddenly there was no Indiana Jones. And then they started looking for Marion (Ravenwood) and I did some screen tests and they cast me but there was still no Indiana Jones.

About three weeks before we were going to start shooting they homed in on Harrison who was, of course, in their own back yard because George had been working with him in the “Star Wars” films. I met him in Steven’s [Spielberg] office for the first time and then we had dinner one night and kind of got to know each other a little bit and then I didn’t see him again until we all started working on the film.

Q. What was Steven Spielberg like as a director?

A. It was an interesting experience for me because I had never worked with somebody who was so prepared. Maybe with a film like “Raiders” you have to work that way. You can’t just sort of say, “we’ll get to the location and see what we like doing.” He had the entire film storyboarded, which was literally every shot had a drawing for how he was going to shoot it, what the angles were for every shot. Very Old Hollywood and quite extraordinary. But at the same time he was very open to change, to new ideas. Maybe in a sense that level of preparation gave him a freedom to be [less rigid]. He had such a clear vision of what the film was going to be.

Karen Allen and Harrison Ford star in the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Karen Allen and Harrison Ford star in the 1981 film “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Paramount

Q. Marion was a cool female character. She was spunky, she was independent, she was tough. Did Spielberg give you freedom to help create her. Was part of you in her?

A. I think she was fairly well-written in the screenplay, which presented this wonderful character. In the Raven Bar she was drinking men under the table and Indy walks in and she punches him in the face She’s battling the Nazis, she shoots the guy in the back to save Indy’s life, she’s speaking in Nepalese and ordering a bunch of drunken men out of her bar, and it’s like, YEAH. I like this woman! ... I felt like I did bring big parts of myself that wanted to be more like this character from the very beginning.

But there were times throughout the script where [the filmmakers], for comic effect, wanted to turn her into a damsel in distress, and I would say no, you should’t do that. This is a woman who’s a survivor. She’s very resourceful and independent. She doesn’t need necessarily to be protected. She’s got her own way of moving through the world. I got fiercely protective of her reputation [laughs].

The 40th anniversary of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is being celebrated in a four-movie, ultra-HD box set from Paramount Home Entertainment.
The 40th anniversary of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is being celebrated in a four-movie, ultra-HD box set from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Paramount

Q. What was the coolest location shoot?

A. There were quite a few. We went up to LaRochelle in France and there are bunkers built by the Nazis to hide their submarines on the coast of France. And the French have tried to get rid of them since WWII but they were built with 10-feet thick walls of concrete so they have not been able to get rid of them. I had no idea things like that still existed.

And the Sahara Desert has stayed in my mind all these years. It’s extraordinary. It’s just as one would imagine it. It’s Lawrence of Arabia. It’s beautiful and hot and weirdly enough we were there in August. I don’t know who planned that [Laughs]. Very exotic. I’ve been back to Morocco and Tunisia.

Q. What is the film’s legacy?

A. The legacy is how it has been passed down from one generation to another. We’re looking at 40 years and I have met people who sat together with their father when they were children and now they’re grown up and they’re showing it to their kids. That is kind of extraordinary that a film somehow has been treasured by the original generation to such an extent that it’s one of those films that you want to share with your own children.